“Please make mistakes,” Brad Fortier, comedian and educational director at The Brody Theater explains, “they’re essential to this art, because a lot of those mistakes can become very brilliant comedy if we utilize rather than minimize the mistakes.” Fortier talks casually with students, “Improv training really opens a different way of being – when you eradicate insecurities around mistakes. With improv we’re breaking social norms to get to this comedy.” People come to the show to be entertained and maybe, with a desire to participate. One of the attractions of the theater is a chance to enroll in classes, overcome your fear of speaking in public, and be spontaneously creative with people.
The Brody Theater has been active in Portland for twelve years and just leased a new home at 16 NW Broadway. It’s in the lower part of the Broadway Hotel, between Helen’s Market and Ichiban Sushi. The Housing Authority of Portland welcomed the theater to Old Town in hopes of creating a positive alternative to the dive bars and dance clubs in downtown. Check their website for showtimes: http://www.brodytheater.com
The players start each show with a suggestion from the audience. “In long-form improvisation, a pattern or series of relationships among the characters emerge.” Tom Johnson, founder of The Brody Theater explains, “They aren’t connected literally but by pattern, theme, and motif. The performers discover and work with the pattern; the theme emerges through the work.” Johnson moved to Portland in 1996 and started teaching improv. “Brad was a student. He was in the second session; and Kerry was the first to call and sign up for classes in the Spring of 1996.”
“I had done improv in high school,” Kerry Leek says, “The English teacher introduced us to the Harold in a really vague sort of way. When I moved to Portland I saw a poster that said, Do you want to do the Harold? And I didn’t really know what it was, but I wanted to do it. So I called him almost immediately. I said I didn’t have any money – I was 19 – I talked his ear off. I was really excited. He said I could pay in installments.”
“Serendipity is what led me to improv,” Fortier explains, “I used to ride the number 15 bus, and I saw a guy on the bus reading the same book – we were both reading Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth. I was reading the big picture version and he was reading the regular book. When we got out at the same stop, he stopped at a telephone pole to look at a rock band poster. And I thought, I wonder if I should look? And that’s where I saw a flyer for improvisors to join the Brody Theater.”
In class, Fortier introduces one of the passwords to improv: follow-the-follower. “In a scene the least you can do is match their energy, match their pace. If someone’s giving you a trigger – or what I would call a very good gift – I would let that change you. Even if someone hands you a pencil, I would let that change you.” Fortier emotes, “A pencil. I thought I was going to get pen.” A basic premise of improv: affirming and adding on to what your partner does.
“Narrative here is a network of relationships over a period of time.” Fortier ventures, “The best improvisors are really accomplished at creating funny relationships, not just quippy dialogue. If you create interesting relationships, you will create longer lasting and more meaningful comedy.” Fortier says, “In a scene, you let that person affect you and result in a particular emotion.” He contrasts this with trying to get them to conform to a preconceived idea and reminds us, “You all have something when you walk up here because we all share social and cultural scripts.”
Johnson started out doing stand-up comedy in New York City and moved to Chicago in the mid-80’s to study improv. “When I got there I learned about Close – that’s why I went to Improv Olympic, because I heard he was there. If you wanted to really learn, he was the man.” Del Close taught many of today’s most notable comedians. “When I met him he had just turned 50, and he had just stopped drinking. The stories and myths around him are interesting, but what I got from Del Close was his acute awareness of the theatrical value of improv – of what can be accomplished.” Johnson emphasizes, “The laugh is a by-product of good improv, it’s not the goal. The goal is moments of recognition and connection with the audience and people on stage.”
“All ideas are connected,” Johnson affirms, “all people are connected one way or another. We’re not creating it – it’s a fact. We’re just finding the connection, tuning into it.” Leek’s experience with improv has helped her find the patterns in everyday life. “Improv has made me completely flexible,” she says, “I think it has made me really analytical about what’s going on – how things are going to proceed – but really okay with changing that at a drop of a hat. It’s made me tie things together that I wouldn’t normally tie together intellectually.”
“The best shows are when I feel slightly challenged, slightly nervous. If I’m a little bit nervous, it causes me to be psychologically present.” Leek confides, “The best improv is based on reality, based on your everyday experiences. It’s much more interesting to watch when it’s something you can relate to.” Leek creates characters by tapping into her own emotions. “Sometimes it’s not how I feel, it’s the opposite,” she points out, “but it’s still something I can relate to – it’s from my own experience.”
“Improvisors bring their entire life up to that moment onto the stage, because that’s where we get the subject matter for the scenes,” Johnson confirms. “Some people ask, ‘Where do you get your material?’ That’s always a strange question for me because the answer is: from our lives. If you come to improv you’re seeing a group of people create theater spontaneously as a small community’s expression of the world around them. With improv the entire creative process is compressed into one moment.”
“We reach the truth in life to get to this humor,” Fortier exclaims, “comedy is that: it’s truth. It’s our job: to be funny, to be profound. That’s what improv is – having on the ground, real human interactions. That’s how we make something from nothing on the improv stage.”
When students get their first really successful scene experience, it’s almost like therapy. It’s rare that something gives connection of our identities or our lives and all those around us. While taking improv classes at The Brody Theater, one learns about the role of uncertainty, ambiguity, and newness in the ability to be spontaneously creative. “There’s two enemies to improv: being sorry and being worried.” Brad explains, “Being sorry is focused on the past. Being worried is focused on the future. If you’re bouncing between those, you can’t be present and focus on the situation at hand.”
“A lot of the satisfaction in the audience is to see a clear line of build from their idea,” Fortier says, “that leads to their sense of investment, their sense of involvement in this. To see their idea turn into an integral part of the performance, a sense of being ‘completely in on it’ emerges.” At those moments people can really grasp and experience the magic of improvisation.
“Brody” is a slang term introduced in the early 20th century when a guy named Steve Brody jumped off the Brooklyn Bridge, and lived. Johnson explains, “He did it on a dare, and not as a suicide. And so the term ‘to do a brody’ became: to do something daring and dangerous, but with a successful outcome – to take a daring leap.”